Hillary Rettig has gone and written a very helpful post, “Writing Isn’t Hard!” on a favorite technique for dealing with an inner critic while writing. She’s been gathering all kinds of productivity tips and techniques and experiences for a book for writers called The Seven Secrets of the Prolific that will be coming out in August.
Tag Archives: Writer’s block
Dean Wesley Smith reposted an edited version of his essay on the attitude that “Writing is Hard,” and it got me thinking about how to get the inner critic to shut up. You know, the inner voice that says, “This sucks! You suck!” when you’re trying to get your first draft written.
I just came up with a nifty technique for shutting up the inner critic that I’d like to share. It’s sort of a mental combo of National Novel Writing Month‘s daily word quota assignment, Laura Resnick’s essay “The Long Haul” in Rejections, Romance, and Royalties where she compares writing to trucking, several episodes of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, and thinking about my past experiences as a cafeteria worker.
Step 1: Choose a down-to-earth analogy for writing. It can be trucking, bricklaying, road paving, plumbing, cafeteria cooking, whatever. However, choosing an environment that will make your inner critic feel uncomfortable to be in is a definite plus.
Step 1 Example: I really liked Laura Resnick’s trucking analogy for writing a long fantasy novel, so I chose trucking. Instead of meeting daily mileage goals, I’d be meeting word quota goals. But the mindset had to be the same. I have yet to hear a story about a trucker moping at a truck stop about how his inner critic keeps telling him his driving sucks…and so he’s stopped driving in mid-journey.
Step 2: Hone in on that inner critic voice that keeps showing up when you’re trying to write. Give it a physical persona that you can visualize in your mind–what does he or she wear? look like? what profession? etc. (Note, if it takes on a persona that won’t be intimidated by the analogy chosen in Step 1, choose a new analogy.)
Step 2 Example: When I honed in on my inner critic voice, it morphed into an English professor guy who likes to wear tweed.
Step 3:Imagine your supervisor for your analogy to writing.
Step 3 Example: I found myself visualizing that I worked for “Flo.” She runs a small trucking company in North Carolina and loves to eat cole slaw burgers for lunch. There’s a stack of James Lee Burke and Nora Roberts paperbacks on the corner of her desk that she likes to read during breaks. Often she wears NASCAR T-shirts. She has 0% patience for whining or crap. The trucking garage smells of diesel and there’s the rumble of engines as trucks pull up or drive off.
Step 4: The next time the inner critic voice shows up during a writing session, tell it “Go away. I’ve got a quota for this first draft I’ve got to meet.” If the critic refuses to go away, make him or her go visit your supervisor to complain.
Step 4 Example: When Dr. Inner Critic showed up and wouldn’t shut up during the first draft work I was doing, I imagined sending him off to Flo to whine at her instead about the quality of my writing. Writers, by training, have very vivid imaginations. My imagination gave me a whole short scene of Inner Critic beginning his whine about my writing, and losing steam as Flo glared at him. Then she asked him, “Are you going to do L.M.’s work?” which made him hunch up as he replied, “No.” Then she ripped into him verbally with insults about his stupidity and laziness until he slunk off. I got back to work since there was a quota to meet. Inner Critic left me alone since showing up again would mean another yellfest from Flo.
These days, whenever an inner critic voice pops up during the writing of a first draft, I do the steps above, and it shuts that voice up darn quick. I hope it does likewise for you all. Good luck!
In last week’s blog post I talked about dealing with rejections by stopping the thoughts that it is personal (aka “My writing sucks”), permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”). Some of us like to call these negative thoughts “the problem of the three p’s.” And they are a problem, because they create a feedback loop that sabotages the ability to keep submitting and also makes it difficult to focus on craft skills.
This week I want to dig deeper into what can be done to shake “the three p’s” off, and introduce the idea of what I like to call the “maybe spectrum.” Too often knee jerk thinking is binary–it’s “Yes or No,” “Up or Down,” and “This or That.” Reality is often much blurrier.
The techniques I’m about to discuss can be used not only with rejections, but with any pattern where writers are noticing self-sabotaging thoughts going on. I’m just going to focus on rejections because it’s an easy example that typically causes a lot of pain and annoyance for writers.
Ready? Let’s go.
Taking It Personally (aka “My writing sucks”)
First step, write the negative sentence down.
Second, strike out any personal references–I, me, my, myself, etc–in that sentence.
Now, rewrite the sentence. In this case, it would become “This story sucks.”
Considering that writers are the worst judges of their own work, I now ask, “How do you know for sure?” It may well be that 99% of the time, the story does suck, but at least 1% of the time it might just be repeatedly rejected because has a strange voice. So now you should change the sentence to, “This story probably sucks.”
Welcome to what I like to call the “maybe spectrum,” that fuzzy area between “Yes” and “No.”
Which brings up another point–if you haven’t reached pro level in your craft knowledge, you probably won’t be able to tell if there’s a problem with the story no matter how many times you reread it. And showing the story to other beginning writers also probably won’t help, because they’re in the same boat as you are and are going to have an instinctual urge to rewrite your story in their own voice. However, if there are pros in the writing group, they might be able to help.
Showing the story to a group of avid readers might help, though they won’t be able to tell you how to fix it.
So, under the “This story sucks” sentence, you could then ask yourself, “Are there things I need to study or do to figure out what is going on here?”
Oftentimes if a writer is unpublished, that writer is better off going on to write four new stories instead of trying to rewrite the old one because so much more will be learned in writing the new stories.
Also, like any other field of endeavor, if you want to be the best, you need to study with the best. Look around and see if writers whose writing you love teach a class, write books about writing, or lecture at a conference. And if that means having to get a on a plane to fly cross-country to study with them, do it. Also, if you want to make a living writing fiction, you need to study with writers who make a living writing fiction.
Seeing It as Permanent (aka “I’ll never sell a story”)
First step, write the negative sentence down.
Second, strike out the “never” or “always” that makes it a negative sentence. Because really, how do you know for sure? If you’re able to predict the future at 100%, you’re wasting your special predictive skills by doing fiction writing–you ought to be working for a policy institute that studies future trends. They need you.
Here’s the deal. If a writer tells himself too many times that “I’ll never sell a story,” sooner or later he will come to believe it and stop submitting work. Also, this way of seeing the situation blinds the writer to what is going on around him.
A better tactic would be to say, “This story is looking like it’s a hard sell. What is going on here? Is it a craft issue? A market issue? Productivity problems? Burnout?”
Maybe it’s a craft issue and he needs to go study with some great writers to get better. Or maybe the market for novellas has gone away and he’s going to have to self-publish them instead. Or maybe he’s only writing one short story a year, so the odds of a sale are extremely poor. Or maybe he’s just burned out in his stories because he’s trying to please every imaginary reader and editor in his head. But the only way he’s going to figure this out is if he asks the questions in the first place.
Again, we’re back on the “maybe spectrum.”
Seeing It as Pervasive (aka “I’m a loser”)
I consider this attitude so deadly that I don’t want you to even write it down. And actually, if this is a reoccurring thought for anyone reading this, please seriously consider doing cognitive therapy for a few months to get this destructive thought train to stop.
What makes this thought so nasty that the rejection of a story turns into a self-judgment on an entire person’s life.
Even if it turns out that a writer has no talent for fiction writing, that does not mean those hours while she wrote were wasted. Writing can be a hobby just like painting, and a way to grow as a human being for it pushes one to pay close attention to the world. Also, I’ve met too many people who see fiction writing as the only kind of writing to do because they crave fame or money–it might very well be that non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, technical writing, etc. is a happier fit.
People like to fantasize about fame and money as a fiction writer solving their problems, but in reality if they achieve success their problems will just get more numerous and bigger since fiction writing is a business. Don’t believe me? Go read articles about what happens to lottery ticket winners.
Another point I’d like to make is that failure in one endeavor can result in skills that lead to success in another. Too often the dichotomy of “winner” and “loser” in people’s minds makes them forget about this. The mistakes teach us so much, if we’re willing to learn from them.
People tend to be too fond of slapping labels on themselves. “I’m a _____.” But in reality, we are many many roles at the same time, and have the possibility of discovering new ones to take on if we’re willing to do so…if we’re willing to risk making mistakes.
Remember, each of us has within ourselves an undiscovered country of possibilities.
Thanks for reading. I had fun writing this at the airport while waiting for my plane flight–it made the time go much more quickly than usual. Next Monday I’ll go into more depth about trying to look for wriggle room in publishing situations that seem to be one of “no control.”
Fiction writers and salespeople have more in common than they realize. Just like doing cold-calling in sales, the journey to the first sale by a fiction writer goes like this:
“No, no, no, no, no, no, …” (typically this part in parenthesis has about 40 to 500 entries of No) “…, no, yes, no, …” (more “No”s) “…, no, yes, no, …” and on and on and on until the writer either 1) stops submitting work to editors, 2) quits, or 3) dies.
Every once in a while, fiction writers will encounter another writer who got a “Yes” the first time a story was ever submitted to an editor. Rare, but it happens. For a few seconds there’s a strong temptation by everyone else to hurl their pens at that person. However, the profession of fiction writing is so rough and tumble that at some point that writer will get a long streak of “No”s that will balance out that easy “Yes” earlier on.
In last week’s blog post on “Fiction Writers and Learned Helplessness,” I did a thought experiment where I compared the submissions process to sticking your hand into a box where one of three things happened: 1) you got an electric shock for “No,” 2) nothing happened for the situation of no response, or 3) you got injected with an opiate for “Yes.”
I mentioned some of the mind games–such as setting up a scoring points system for submissions, or having a friendly competition with other writers to gather the most rejections–that fiction writers play to keep writing and submitting despite the frustration of getting a heavy flow of “No”s.
In this post, I want to explore some of the mental techniques that can be used to keep going. These techniques are based on ones covered in Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism that were developed by studying groups that had to deal with a high flow of “No”s, like salespeople.
A writer who has a pessimistic mindset that sees each rejection as permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), personal (“My writing always sucks”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”) is going to have a hard time of it on the journey to that first “yes” from an editor. I ought to know, since I’m a pessimist by nature, and had to teach myself not to talk to myself constantly in a defeatist manner.
The good news is, one can change how one reacts to rejection. Let’s take the above three thoughts in order and explore how to do that.
Seeing rejection as permanent (i.e. “I’ll never sell a story.”)
Whenever the word “never” or “always” shows up in a negative thought, consider it a red flag. Sure, the negative thought might be accurate, but the operative word is “might,” not “is.” Too often, negative self-talk turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m constantly telling myself “I’ll never sell a story,” I’ll lose the motivation to keep writing and submitting my stories, and this negative thought will in time become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Also, another fallacy in this negative thought is the assumption that one’s writing cannot improve. When I had doubts about my craft, one of the best decisions I ever made was to find teachers whose writing I admired and go study with them as a student.
Seeing rejection as personal (“My writing always sucks.”)
Here’s another case of leaping to a negative conclusion when a “No” is encountered. Here’s the ugly truth about the slush pile–the editor may have been in a bad mood or exhausted that day, and decided to do automatic form rejections for everyone in the slush pile regardless of merit.
Beware of the usage of “my” and “I” in a negative thought about rejections. There’s a big difference between saying, “This story sucks” vs. “My writing sucks.” The second is much nastier in the self-inflicted attack. The first will keep you calm enough to be able to look over your writing and learn from mistakes.
Seeing rejection as pervasive (“I’m a loser.”)
This is where the negative self-talk gets really ugly. A writer gets a rejection, and immediately jumps to treating the rejection as a commentary on everything that the writer does (including non-writing activities) and who the writer is as a human being. Please don’t do this–repetition of the “I am a loser” mantra will sabotage morale and motivation. Again, it’s an attitude that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes it impossible to learn from mistakes.
So, that covers the problem of the three p’s (permanent, personal, pervasive) in dealing with rejections. Also, finding ways to laugh at the whole submissions process helps a great deal–whether it’s writing a story that makes fun of it all, telling jokes, or throwing darts at rejection letters. Try different tactics, and see what works.
I find I have more to say, and next Monday I will talk about some of our perceptions as writers of what we can and cannot control in publishing. We often see things as “Yes or no,” “Open or shut,” and such, when the reality is more complicated than that. There are mental techniques that can be used to brainstorm ways to try and gain more control of a situation.
I will be on business travel, but will do my best to get internet access to post next Monday.
P.S. If you would like to make a comment and have a Facebook account, you can go to my author page to write one. I completely forgot about it as an option for readers last week.
Recently I was told about some articles written by Hillary Rettig to help those who are having trouble finishing their writing projects. Definitely take a look at her article on “Twelve Tips for (Finally) Finishing Your Book,” or the article “A Simple Exercise for Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block,” or the short guide “The Little Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block.”
She also posts on productivity topics as a blogger at the Huffington Post.
Here’s a brief excerpt from “Twelve Tips for (Finally) Finishing Your Book:”
Anyone can start a book—and thousands of people have.
The trick is finishing the book you start.
As someone who has published hundreds of articles, I faced this reality head-on when writing my first book, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006). I worked on it for a year, and while the work was fun, it was also grueling. At times, like any marathoner, it was all I could do to force myself to put one foot (or word) ahead of the other. At other times, I was sick to death of the whole endeavor and wanted to ditch it and work on something else.
But I didn’t: I stayed the course and was able to finish the book. I had the advantage of being a coach who specializes in teaching activists and artists about time management, project management and getting past blocks. The techniques I teach were extremely useful to me as I worked to finish my own book project. Here are some of them:
To read more, either click on the above link to read the rest of the article, or click here.
I’ve created a website page that has links to the posts that are most focused on dealing with writer’s block and other creative blocks. Over time I’ll add to it, and add links so it can work as a resource page. I want to do this as a way to start “paying it forward” for all the help I’ve received from other artists.
Dean Wesley Smith has a great post this week on “Dare to Be Bad” when writing, though I think the motto could be applied to any new endeavor where perfectionism and a fear of risk-taking is a problem.
Brad Torgersen took Dean’s motto a step further, and used his experiences learning to ski as an analogy for learning to write in “On Writing and Skiing: Dare to Be Bad!”
I found both posts helpful in dealing with the fear of making mistakes, especially when I imagined what it would look like on the slopes if beginning skiers behaved the same way writers aspiring to publication often did.
Plus, I learned a skier slang word from Brad, “biff.” Which sounds a LOT more fun than “error,” “mistake,” or “screwed up.” Biff’s the word for when you tumble over while skiing. I think from now on when I tumble when writing (i.e. characterization didn’t quite work, plot hole missed, forgot the sense of smell or taste, whatever) I’m going to say to myself “I biffed it” instead of “I screwed it up.” Puts the situation in better perspective in my mind, because both skiing and writing can be tremendous fun until the tumble happens.
And “biff” doesn’t have the undertone of negativity that “screw up” and “error” do. My fiction writing isn’t a training manual for pilots or a textbook for nurses, and while it’s important to do my best and correct all the “biffs” I can find, it’s also important to know when to move on to the next story or novel instead of obsessively revising something until it’s dead on the page.
What I’m about to discuss is a writing productivity technique I’ve heard about. It involves turning writing into a game with points. I’ve found the point system has the handy side-effect of making it easy to see if writer’s block or submissions block is creeping up on me.
There are two goals to choose from in this game (or one can choose to track both goals): Writing Productivity (WP), or Submissions Productivity (SP). Dean Wesley Smith has tackled a version of the query game in his post on Goal Motivation under Trick #2, so I’m just going to concentrate on the Writing Productivity game.
First off, decide how many points each of the following is worth. I’ve listed my own point system, but feel free to change it. Points are ONLY awarded for a FINISHED piece of work. Incomplete work gets zero points. No exceptions.
Finished Short Story (<7500 words): 1 pt.
Novelette (7500 – 15k): 2 pt.
Novella (15k to 50k): 5 pt.
Novel (50k to 125k): 10 pt. (I deliberately give a novel twice the points of a novella because on average mine tend to be in the 100k range.)
Second, decide on the total points goal for the year. Make it realistic, but enough of a stretch that you’ll be a sweating to get there. If desired, you can break the points down into smaller goals by seasons, semesters, months, whatever.
Then find a white board, and each month, tally the total points for the year so far. Seriously consider giving yourself a prize (such as a longed-for book or album) if you meet certain sub-goals during the year.
My complaint about only giving a prize for meeting the total goal points for the year is that it’s too a long a wait for getting a reward for productive behavior. Significant increases in productivity ought to be celebrated and rewarded as they’re happening.
Sometimes illness or tragedy or severe writer’s block can result in a work-in-progress grinding to a halt. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to other writers I know. The best piece of advice I ever got for coming back after a long hiatus was:
Set the daily word count goal absurdly low. 25 to 50 words/day max if the situation is particularly severe. Do that writing goal for 5 days the first week. Slowly ramp up the word count each week (unless you’re chomping at the bit to do more). If you grind to a halt, cut the goal for the number of words per day in half and start over from there.
I’ve tried out this advice in the past, and found it did the trick to get me back into the swing of things. So I wanted to share it in case someone else out there is dealing with this writing issue.